A wildly successful woman in the man’s world of cartooning, Nell Brinkley (1886-1944) was intent on letting her comics page heroines have it all. Fantasy was the passport Brinkley used to ferret her characters and readers from the domesticity most experienced to a world of self-expression, assertiveness, fame and professional success. I have written a bit about Brinkley in an earlier review of Trina Robbins’ superb Flapper Queens, and I am in the middle of writing an extended essay on her under-appreciated importance to comics history. But here is a compact example of the wonderful extravagance of her romantic fantasies and the ways she channeled for women a growing frustration with the social roles available to them in 1920s America.
Dimples’ Day Dreams from 1928 came late in the series of graphic short stories Brinkley drew through much of the 1920s, each of which would run for a dozen or so weekly episodes. In Dimples, Brinkley underscores a theme present in most of her work, modern women breaking out of the domestic sphere into adventure, professional competence, intrigue, fame. Romantic engagement and marriage often served as the end point of these series, but not the substance of most episodes. In fact, by the time we get to 1928, Brinkley’s Dimples premise is the tension between social expectations of women, Dimples’ boyfriend begging her to marry, and dreaming of bigger, more satisfying lives.
“Be Pretty Mrs. Jones” urges Dimples “droning” boyfriend. Broken down here into its rough panel structure, this episode embodies Brinkley’s use of feminine escapist fantasy as a motif. And the sheer extravagance of that fantasy is such a delicious part of Brinkley’s work. Dimples isn’t just a celebrated film star in this day dream, but her erotic power threatens to “burn the fuses.” The thrill of Brinkley’s work is its excess. There is the excess of line work and detail. There is the material excess of her heroes’ embrace of Gatsby-era materialism, high fashion, eroticism. It is all there and all over the top.
Compared to just about anyone else working in the Sunday comics pages of the 1920s, Brinkley extended the form into a unique kind of visual storytelling. Her “panels” are aimed less at advancing a linear story than hitting different emotional notes to flesh out a central fantasy. Most of her Sunday strip culminate in an emotional climax rather than a gag or story resolution in an oversized splash image. Compare this progression to that other great comics master of fantasy, Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend0. McCay’s fantasies end in a final panel where his protagonist wakes from the dream. Brinkley end with the fantasy at its peak.
Nell Brinkley is not only an undervalued pioneer of American comics, but she is an important figure in understanding the complex history of American women in the last century. On a weekly basis she was engaging her audience’s discontent with the social roles available to them and fantasizing a broader range of options. That she had to use extravagant fantasy and daydreaming to get there only underscored the constraints her admiring audience experienced and felt.